Educators share how they teach 9/11 in the classroom

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

Last week, we appealed to the educators in the Lookout audience to tell us how they were planning on teaching the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Several teachers told The Lookout that they strove to find creative ways to teach an event to kids who were toddlers or not even born when the Twin Towers fell.

"What has stuck me the most about the whole topic of 9/11 this year, is that these kids were 3 when it happened. They honestly do not remember it," writes Tami Hicks, a 7th grade social studies teacher at Goshen Middle School in Goshen, Indiana. Hicks asked last Thursday for her students to write down what they thought happened on Sept. 11, 2001, to get a sense of where her classroom discussion should begin. What she found surprised her: About 75 percent of her 62 students seemed to have no idea what happened on that day.

"I read responses such as, 'Bombs blew up those buildings.' 'Two planes crashed because they were bombed,' 'Japan bombed the USA,' 'The Hexagon burned down,' 'Iraq started a war' and I could go on and on. This is a formative assessment that gives me background knowledge as to where I need to start.

"Every year that I have taught prior to this, there have been some students that distinctly remember something. Now, that is gone. I. Feel. Old."

Meanwhile, Amanda Harper, who teaches K-5 in Clinton Young Elementary in Indianapolis, Indiana, varies her approach to meet her students' age level. "For kindergarten and first, I briefly mention a tragedy and repeat the date so they understand what the 10th anniversary means," Harper writes. "Then the focus is more on heroes and what makes a hero. This leads into firefighters, police, military, etc."

With students in grades 2nd through 5th, Harper asks them to talk about what they already know about 9/11, and then lets the class ask questions and discuss. "My principal was very adamant about NOT showing the actual footage of 9/11 but rather focus on life today and how it impacts us," Harper says. "So far EVERY class has gotten quite in depth during discussion and the older students seem very respectful in learning about the tragedy."

Andrea Sargent, a high school history teacher in Phoenix, Arizona said her students interviewed family members about their experiences on 9/11 and presented what they found to the class. "These are high school sophomores and juniors, so the conversations and evaluations were amazingly insightful from an age group that views this as history, as opposed to something that happened to them," Sargent wrote. The students also analyzed iconic images from the day, including the falling man photo, and discussed what these photos meant to them today.

Thomas Dittl, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, kindergarten teacher, was in Manhattan when the planes struck and doesn't shy away from talking about the event with his students. "I explain to my scholars that 9/11 has meaning in the choices a person can make. Good choices have good consequences and bad choices have bad consequences," he writes.

Ricardo Bernal, an ESL teacher at Aycock Middle School in Greensboro, N.C., says he asked his friend who is a 9/11 survivor to address the entire school in an assembly to mark the anniversary. He has also asked students to write thank you letters to first responders and to compare news articles about the attacks and analyze their accuracy. The students are also creating a "Chain of Hope" of personal messages.